Bradley Jersak – Anthropomorphisms & Incarnation

Question

I’m reading your chapter in A More Christlike Word on Cassian and Ambrose. I find it really helpful to have the Fathers speaking about the question of “anthropomorphism.” The question that keeps rattling around as I read is that this is great when we apply it to the negative things we attribute to God, but what about the positive? Compassion, kindness, love, delight; even grief? I see that you note that God’s love is immutable so that it isn’t wavering like human passions. But how is it still not an anthropomorphism of sorts, if other human emotions like wrath and anger are?

Response

Great question. I think that these, too, are human projections, in the sense that we can only use human words that describe human experiences that are analogous to human actions and emotions. We recognize that this comes with severe limitations in terms of apprehending the God of the universe who is ineffable and beyond being.
However, anthropomorphisms, as shadowy analogies are not empty or meaningless. Words like love are even difficult to nail down from human to human, BUT we rely on a few truths that allow us a meaningful approximation:
1. Words do mean something and God isn’t afraid to use them. So when God reveals himself as love or compassion or mercy, that’s not merely a human projection from below. It’s a self-revelation of God who wants to say something about himself using our words.
2. To be created in the image and likeness of God in us means something.  God images something of God in us. So, again, we are analogous images of God so that at the very least, God cannot be LESS than what we are (e.g., relational) and we know that he is certainly MORE than we are (e.g., ultra-relational). As shadows of reality, human nature at its best ‘gestures’ toward our blueprint.
3. That Jesus is the image and essence of God means we have a revelation of who God is in the flesh, so Incarnation trumps anthropomorphism. So in John 3:16, we read, “For God so [in this way] loved the world,” and “Jesus is the image of the invisible God” and “Jesus is the fulness of the Godhead in bodily form” and “To see me is to see the Father” and “He is the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of his likeness.” So Jesus is the Word of God, as in Jesus is what God has to say about himself. Thus, Jesus provides quality control for all anthropomorphisms.
Anthropomorphisms are never the problem. God freely uses them in his self-revelation. The fathers’ concern is that when we literalize them, we often paint a picture of God that is not only contrary to God’s nature but even to the cruciform image through which he revealed himself.
Hope that helps!
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Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More